Yesterday, I wrote about how a new study showed that the average American can no longer comfortably afford an average-priced car. This got me thinking about exactly when cars got so damn expensive, which is what led me to Corvettes, this chart, and a realization that I may have been thinking about this wrong. I’ll explain.
There’s several reasons why I picked the Corvette as the car to follow the price of throughout the decades. First, it’s been around a while. A long while. And while, sure, there’s a few other specific models that have been around as long or longer, the Corvette has been remarkably consistent in what it is and to whom it’s sold.
The Chevy Suburban, for example, is probably the automotive nameplate that’s been around the longest, with the first cars called ‘Suburban’ appearing way back in 1935. The problem is the Suburban now is a very different sort of car, with a very different sort of market, than it was even as recently as the 1980s.
The Suburban started as a more utilitarian vehicle, and more recently had a pretty dramatic change to something more upscale and luxurious. That means a decade-by-decade price comparison wouldn’t really work, since the car evolved into a different niche.
The Corvette, though, has stayed in essentially the same enthusiast/attention-seeking/midlife crisis sportscar niche since it began, which is what I needed. Regardless of how wide their lapels may be or the length of their skirts or how willing they are to drop their keys into a fishbowl, the target market for Corvettes has remained fairly consistent.
In my head, I assumed that the big price jump would likely come around the 1990s or the 2000s, when all the modern safety and electronics really started to become commonplace or even required, along with the more rigorous emissions and fuel economy standards.
I was totally wrong.
Look at the chart here to see. The chart shows the inflation-adjusted price for a Corvette every ten years, starting in 1956:
The biggest jump – and it’s a hell of a jump, totaling more than the inflation-adjusted cost of a 1956 ‘Vette – comes between 1976 and 1986, when the price jumps from $32,406 to $58,486. Holy shit, the price almost doubles.
This is at least a decade earlier than I would have expected. I had expected this level of jump to happen in the 1990s, when things like airbags became standard on Corvettes. So why did the price rocket up so much in the 1980s?
I think there’s a few reasons, ones I haven’t really thought about before, both technological and cultural.
Technologically, even if the 1980s still predate most of the really stringent standards of safety and emissions, you could argue that the 1980s were the era where the modern car as we know it was really born.
So many technologies we take for granted today – fuel injection, multiple computers integrated into the car, ABS brakes, more use of electronic sensors, even touch-screen center stack displays (remember the Buick Rivera’s CRT?) got their shaky starts in the 1980s.
The 1986 Corvette had a ton of these early versions of modern technologies: ABS, an anti-theft system, triple catalytic converters, and even that bonkers all-digital dashboard. These sorts of electronics were still relatively new, and not all that cheap.
So, I think the 1980s were a transitional era to modern, highly electronic cars, and that’s part of the cost. I think the other part is the increasing expectation that they could get away with it.
The ‘80s really pushed conspicuous consumption to new heights. Sure, buying expensive shit and showing it off have been part of human culture ever since there’s been money and shiny crap, but the ‘80s pushed wealth culture into the mainstream in a more dramatic way than ever before.
Remember Yuppies? Nobody would shut up about them in the 1980s, and for those of us kids who just wanted to play our Ataris in peace, the word still makes me cringe. It was real, though, and it made the idea of conspicuous consumption as a goal unto itself, and there were few things more conspicuous to consume than a nice shiny firezit red Corvette.
So, all of this is just to say that based on this one kind of car – a consistent and good example across decades, but still just one model of car – the 1980s seem to be the cars-sure-are-expensive turning point.
I should do this with some other car models that have had similar consistent target markets, like maybe the Mustang or maybe a Corolla and see if this pattern bears out. I suspect that for cars with a lesser focus on performance or being advanced, we’ll see the price jump happen later, as the cars don’t need to be on the cutting edge.
I’ll look into it. In the meantime, enjoy the chart!